The Internet of Things Took Over CES — and Will Soon Take Over Our Homes
Smart home tech gives appliances a cool new makeover, but safety experts raise concerns
The Internet of Things took center stage at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, with smart home technology garnering much of the buzz.
One refrigerator has a touch screen to display photos, recipes and messages. The camera inside lets you check via cellphone whether you’re out of milk while you’re at the grocery store. According to Fox News, the fridge also has technology to track and monitor your family’s eating habits. Another product in the spotlight is a washer-dryer combo that can automatically start itself at times of day when energy costs are lower.
But as more and more things in your home start talking to you, and to each other, all that futuristic connectedness — known as the Internet of Things, or IoT — could pose some safety and privacy concerns, say experts.
What is the Internet of Things?
The IoT is all sorts of, well, things in your environment — your house, your workplace, where you shop and the streets you travel — that will increasingly communicate with each other, according to Tom Blewitt, corporate fellow and director of principal engineers at UL, a global independent safety company.
“You don’t directly observe it, but all this communication is going on behind the scenes, and it’s done to make you safer, to make life more convenient,” Blewitt says. “The connectedness and communication allows for more possibilities than any one smart thing can achieve by itself.”
You might already have some smart tech is your home — a smart TV, a webcam or a home security system for instance. Ownership of connected home devices grew by 50 percent in the United States last year, PCWorld reports, and 43 percent of all homes will buy at least one device this year.
“Entertainment and security are the big drivers at the moment,” Blewitt says. “There are Bluetooth door locks and home security systems where you come up to your front door and unlock it via your cellphone. You’re seeing garage door openers integrated with the lights in the house and other things that sense when you are gone and act accordingly on their own.”
Safety issue one: Who else is watching?
One issue with connected machines is this: Whom else might they be communicating with, and what might they be communicating?
Take that high-tech new fridge that does everything but go to the grocery store for you. It snaps pictures and transmits them over the Internet. But what else is it doing?
“If it’s taking a video of your milk, is it also taking a video of you or your kids when you open the door? These technologies can introduce a big concern over privacy,” Blewitt says.
When you buy a smart appliance or other product, Blewitt suggests asking about everything it’s seeing and hearing, if the product records and, if so, where (in the product or in the cloud, for example).
The other important question to ask is whether you can turn off functionality when you don’t want it, says Blewitt. Can you turn off a camera or microphone? When you turn it off, does it really turn off? Can someone remotely turn it back on?
Safety issue two: Unattended electronics
The washer-dryer combo creating buzz has a heavyweight computer processor, a 10-inch touch screen, Wi-Fi connectivity and a gigabyte of memory, according to Wired. Not only can it automatically start loads of laundry when energy rates are the cheapest, if it’s installed in an apartment building, tenants could check availability and reserve a time slot online, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Other washer-dryers at the expo enable consumers to order supplies at the touch of a button, Tech Times reports.
But there are risks to consider with some of this new automation, especially if that appliance has a motor or generates high heat. What were attended products can now be operated unattended, perhaps for long periods of time, Blewitt says. If you’re not checking the smart washer/dryer as frequently as you would a regular washer or dryer, would you know if a child has come into the laundry room and thrown a toy or something else into the appliance?
“Just because your product is smart, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be smart. All the precautions you would normally take, don’t suspend that common sense. Pay attention to the warnings and instructions,” Blewitt says.
Safety issue three: A domino effect if something goes wrong
Consider the aforementioned garage door openers and door locks that can be linked to things in your home, like the thermostat or lights. We will quickly become used to the convenience and assume they will work when needed, Blewitt says. He sees new behaviors arising that can lead to new concerns. For example:
- Hackers may access one of the connected devices and be able to lock you out.
- If there’s a power failure or your smartphone battery is dead, you also may be locked out because you no longer bother to carry the key to your front door.
“The more these things are connected, the more you’re adding complexity to your household. And if something goes wrong, it may not be just the garage door that doesn't open, but it could affect the other things it is connected to and depends on,” Blewitt says.”
Related: 4 Ways to Secure Your Garage
Smart home tech safety tips
Smart home tech has plenty of advantages, including some safety benefits that aren’t immediately obvious. For example, consider the fridge again. If your elderly mother keeps her medication in her fridge, you could use your phone to see if she took her medicine that day. And there’s no doubt that smart homes are the wave of the future.
But in addition to Blewitt’s advice above, keep these simple tips in mind.
1. Change the password. If your smart tech device uses a password, change it. “Don’t make it easy for the hacker. If you want to make sure someone doesn’t hack in and violate your privacy, change the default password,” Blewitt says.
2. Keep it away from kids. “IoT gadgetry can be an attraction to children,” Blewitt warns. If you have young children, think twice about where you put devices that light up or can talk to you. Putting them in high places, such as the top of a bureau, may encourage children to climb to get it. The furniture or the TV can fall over on them.
3. Pay attention to batteries. If the device has button batteries, keep it away from children if they can get access to the batteries. Never leave such batteries laying around. If a gadget uses rechargeable batteries, replace them only with rechargeable batteries, Blewitt says. And if something comes with a charger, use only that charger. Don’t go out and buy a substitute not recommended by the manufacturer, he adds.
4. Read the owner’s manual. Smart appliances are different from regular appliances, Blewitt says. For example, many appliance manuals say to unplug the machine when it’s not in use. But that might not be the case if it’s intended to be connected to the Internet 24/7. The manual will reveal all.
Related: SafeBee’s Top Appliance Advice
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